Libertine's Kiss opens up with a wounded royalist cavalier seeking aid. His rescuer? A Puritan widow. What do these details tell us? That Libertine's Kiss takes place during the mid 1600s, right before and during the early reign of Charles I. A time period of which I am completely unfamiliar. But Judith James's does a great job of making it interesting. So the Puritans are in power, but Charles is the rightful heir to the throne. And anyone loyal to him is arrested and thus the entrance of William de Veres, royalist and friend to Charles. He has some information that he needs to take to Charles but he's wounded and he's sewn up by a comely Puritan widow. Waking up with his widow hovering over him, William accuses her of trying to steal his information. When he discovers that she really wasn't, she was just checking him for fever, he makes a move on his widow, and he's more than shocked when she lets herself be seduced! So much for her being a Puritan!
Up to this point, the widow knows who her wounded patient is, but he does not know her identity, nor have names been exchanged. How's this? Through the widow's memories, we find out that William was actually the widow's childhood friend, whom she hasn't seen since she was 14 or 15. You see the widow, her name is Elizabeth, and she grew up on the estate next to William's. They became friends when she was 11 when he rescued her from some local bullies. But they lost touch when he went to school, and her father prohibited Lizzie from seeing William again. William's father was not a Puritan, and so Lizzie's father didn't want William to have a bad influence on Lizzie, whom we realize only pretends to be a Puritan. It's a facade for her, not something she truly believes in her heart. So Lizzie's family is on one side and William's family is on the other.
Back to the present. William was being followed and so Lizzie is taken up before a makeshift military tribunal and found guilty of aiding an enemy of the state. Her lands are forfeit and for the next two years, Lizzie lives a step away from poverty.
When Charles I assumes the throne, Lizzie hears tales that he is giving back people the lands they lost in the previous reign. She decides to ask his highness for her lands back. Her father's lands and her husband's lands. At court, who does she run into? William. When William sees Lizzie at court, trying to get an audience with the king, he quickly recognizes her, as both the comely widow who helped him and his childhood friend. He immediately takes her under his wing and aids her in petitioning the king for her lands.
There is so much more to the story than that. William has a horrible childhood secret that influences his life still. He uses alcohol and women to keep the memories at bay. He is friends with the King and they are not averse to sharing women. But when Lizzie returns to his life, his world is thrown upside down. She makes him feel and he finds himself changing for her. Meanwhile, Lizzie herself changes by her friendship with William. She learns the ways of the court and William hates it when she becomes adept at those very ways. But she is a practical woman and she wants her lands back. She doesn't want to be tied to another man and at his mercy. Because Lizzie's husband was a horrible man who beat her. She never wants to go through that again.
So here we have two characters who were childhood friends and both have pasts that they are keeping secret from the other. But they do become lovers. And even though Lizzie falls in love with William, she is pragmatic. She knows he could never be the man she needs and although it hurts her, it doesn't stop her from doing what she needs to go get what she's come to court to get. That doesn't make her coldblooded, not in the least. It just shows how adept at the game Lizzie has become.
I thought Libertine's Kiss was a good read. In the early half of the book, when Lizzie is still acting like a Puritan, I found the mood of the book dark. And in the second half, when she's reunited with Will, although the darkness from both their pasts is slowly revealed, there was a definite lightness despite the weighty subject matter. I see it as hope for these two characters to come together.